On Relinquishing My Mahathera Status (part 2: Ancient Rules of Discipline and Love)


Ummon said: The world is such a wide world. Why do you put on ceremonial robes at the sound of a bell? —Mumonkan, case 16


     When I first became a Theravada Buddhist monk, ordained in the Burmese Taungpulu tradition, my primary purpose was not to become a follower of a Burmese tradition or to live like a Burmese monk. It was also not my purpose to live like a western monk, whatever that is supposed to mean. My purpose for being ordained into the Theravada Buddhist Sangha was to follow the teachings of the historical Gotama Buddha as well as I could manage, and since he was teaching ascetic monks in ancient north India, my purpose was, consequently, to live like an ancient Indian monk.

     Also, my original purpose was not to be an expert on monastic discipline, or Vinaya. I mainly wanted to meditate while living a life of renunciation, simplicity, and quiet. However, I felt that so long as I had voluntarily joined a monastic order I should conscientiously endeavor to follow the rules as well as I could. And, as it turns out, there are LOTS of rules of monastic discipline. Just about every action in life is regulated by them. There are plenty of rules regulating even cleaning one’s teeth or using the toilet. But I wanted to follow the rules strictly, partly because of the Buddhist ethical trinity of sīla, samādhi, and paññā, or morality, concentration, and wisdom, the concentration and wisdom were elusive and largely beyond my ability to master them, especially at first, whereas I could at least follow the rules and have the outward morality part nailed down. So I became almost fanatical in my strictness, and caused some trouble with more easygoing Burmese monks because, for example, I refused to go anywhere by arrangement with a woman, or to eat food that was not offered properly, or even to pretend to accept money. A few times my insistence on strict Vinaya resulted in the abbot leaving for another monastery to do penance for broken sanghādīsesa rules, because the Burmese do not do it according to the Pali texts and so I refused to acknowledge it as legitimate penance—and according to Vinaya, all monks at a monastery must approve. I really didn’t care much what other monks were doing, although I would grumble at the sloppier and laxer ones; I mainly just wanted to live according to what the Buddha taught, and the most reliable source for that was the ancient Pali texts, and so I did my best to live like an ancient Indian ascetic.

     This was not too difficult in Burma, alias Myanmar. The lifestyle of common villagers out in the countryside is even now not so different from the lifestyle of the common person in the Ganges Valley 25 centuries ago. Men still take their team of bullocks out into the fields to plow in the morning, and girls still walk to the well or river or reservoir with a clay pot balanced on their head to fetch water for the family. Also the culture is devoutly Buddhist, and anywhere in Buddhist Burma I could simply take my iron alms bowl into a village or town in the early morning and devout Buddhists eager for merit would be happy to put food into it. I could wander around and live in caves or under trees or in cemeteries; or those same villagers eager for merit would gladly build a simple little hut in the woods nearby for a monk to live in. Aside from visa extensions handled by a supporter in the big city of Yangon, life was free, just as it was for monks living in the Buddha’s time.



receiving alms in Lay Myay village, in upper Myanmar


     Burmese Buddhist monasticism, like medieval Catholic monasticism, has become quite corrupt in many ways; most Asian monks don’t even try to follow Vinaya correctly, much as most Christians in the west blandly disregard such basic biblical admonitions as “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth.” Even so, in Burma I could avoid monks and established monasteries much of the time. (A famous Italian monk who lived in Burma during British colonial times, and whose name I don’t recall, also famously avoided all monasteries for the simple reason that very few of them are “kosher” or “ritually clean.”) It is literally against the rules, at least in accordance with the orthodox commentarial tradition, even to set foot on the property of a monastery for which monks have spent some of their own money; the rules are so strict that, according to the commentaries, there is even the following scenario: A monk buys a mango with his own money, eats it, and throws the pit on the ground. The mango pit sprouts and grows into a mango tree. One hundred years later a different monk, completely clueless with regard to the origin of that tree, sits in its shade—and he thereby commits an offense of wrong-doing (dukkata āpatti) for making use of something paid for with money handled by a monk.

     So the rules for monks are very restrictive, and are designed to be so within a context of ancient north Indian culture. The rules concerning interactions with human females, and the acquisition and consumption of food, are about as strict as those concerning money, too. But in Burma the culture was similar enough to ancient India, and following those rules was inconvenient at times, but not prohibitively difficult or inconvenient.

     (After many years of relatively extreme strictness I did start fudging on a few rules even before coming back to the west. The only rule I am aware of breaking continually from the beginning of my ordination is the one prohibiting a monk from looking into a mirror unless he is investigating some kind of sore on his face: shaving without a mirror is a pain, and a Thai Sangharāja who wrote a book on Vinaya said using a mirror to shave is allowable, so that was good enough for me. Eventually, even before coming back to the USA, I began opening doors while holding my bowl, urinating while in a standing position (like most men in the west do), and drinking water while naked (it is very hot in Burma, and I often dispensed with wearing clothes while inside a cave). All of this is against the rules. I have fudged on many more since moving into a lax Burmese temple in California, with avoiding such places being not nearly so easy as it was in Burma; but even so, even now I have never broken the rule against wearing extra clothes, even in sub-freezing weather, and I still avoid eating food that is not offered properly, which results in occasional fasting.)

     What all this is getting at is that a “primitive” Buddhist lifestyle, as prescribed and literally required in the Pali texts, is hardly a viable option in the west. Even relatively strict and “exemplary” monks in the west are fairly shameless with regard to this stuff. And many western laypeople, even those who consider themselves to be practicing Theravada Buddhists, not only don’t understand Vinaya but do not see the point of it, seeing it as an incomprehensible case of shackling oneself to a foreign, long dead, and extremist culture. “What do you mean I have to offer the food into your hands on the morning that you eat it? I have a job to go to! I’m busy!” I have lost friends over this kind of predicament: I go somewhere with a friend, say, on a camping trip; and although we are hanging out as friends the other person has to pay for all the expenses and act as my servant besides. It may work with Asian Buddhists who are conditioned to see ordained monks as literally a higher form of life, but for many western Buddhists it is objectionable, and the situation is of course not optimal.

     So a bhikkhu who lives in the west, with very few exceptions, either greatly hampers his own freedom of action, for example by spending his life essentially in a cell, or else he is obliged to be sloppy in following Vinaya; and I do like freedom very much, and I decided long ago that if I don’t want to or can’t follow the rules of monastic discipline relatively strictly, then I should not wear the robes. (Once when I was still a very junior monk I found myself visiting New Nalanda University in India, where a nice Thai lady in our group was offering money to the monks there. I railed at her vehemently about how it is not right to give money into the hands of monks because it is helping them to break the rules and is wrecking their morality. The Thai lady defended her action by saying that the monks there couldn’t live without handling money, whereupon I retorted, “Then they should live somewhere else.” I have had similar ideas about monks living in a place like Alaska or northern Canada, where not only would three robes quickly lead to freezing to death but during winter there may be no dawn, and thus no strictly allowable time to eat. The thing for me, though, is that I just don’t want to live in tropical Asia anymore. I want to live in my own native country where people speak my language—and where there is a real need for Dhamma even though the culture is not very accommodating to renunciant monks.)



under a bodhi tree near Bagan, by the Irrawaddy River


     Different monks have different ways of looking at things, and I am not implying that monks who do not follow Vinaya strictly in the west are all necessarily bad or unconscientious or any such thing; but I personally would rather be unordained and without the more or less sacred obligation to follow the Discipline than a sloppy and unconscientious monk who doesn’t follow the rules, according to my own standards and my own conscience. If I converted to Christianity I’d be haunted by dogmas like “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth,” and “Take no thought for your life, what you will eat; neither for the body, what you will wear.” Summing it all up: If I am voluntarily to join an Order with mandatory rules, I feel that I should follow those rules, or else withdraw from that Order. And as I have tried to point out, the rules do not fit the modern western world very well at all, and I’m tired of SE Asia.

     Which leads to a rather personal ramification of this issue of rules and freedom of action in the west. I have never stopped being heterosexual by nature. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for women, and a natural attraction to some of them, and have an innate desire for love and intimacy in my life, especially with a woman who truly suits me, who is compatible with me, who can blend with me to the extent that two people can. I have always felt an empty place where a mate naturally would be; and celibacy has probably been my sorest trial as a bhikkhu, although I have managed not to get myself excommunicated, and, as I’ve pointed out before, have usually been abnormally strict in following rules. On top of that, as I’ve also mentioned before, I have felt for more than ten years that some deep human interaction could be a good way to continue, even as a spiritually oriented person, considering that solitude has run its course.

     Maybe I’m too high-testosterone to be contentedly celibate; I came from an oversexed family anyhow, and my father, and his father before him, could not live happily, for very long anyhow, without a mate. I have managed for many years, but as I say, it has not been easy. The benefits I received from meditating in solitude made celibacy worth the discomfort and aloneness for many years. At any rate my male instincts may help to explain my unusually “macho” style of Buddhism in Asia, where I was seen as a kind of Buddhist Rambo.

     So what I am getting at here is that I want a woman, someone to love and be close to; and I already know who she is, I have my heart set on her already, and she is truly lovely. So there is that, too.

     I fully realize that most adults are sexually active, and that most people are not particularly happy—demonstrating that having a mate is no guarantee of happiness, just going with statistics. A romantic relationship leads to rougher seas in Samsara, more downs as well as ups, and usually more attachments. Emotional neutrality is left behind. Those who are in a romantic relationship are not fully satisfied—but then again those who are celibate aren’t either. The First Noble Truth always applies, no matter where we are, or how we live. In this case I feel that no longer struggling against a deep part of my nature, and simply acting in harmony with it, with a woman who is “my type,” and mentally and spiritually attuned to me, and me to her, amazingly so, and who is adorable besides, is the “sensible,” in some respects even the “wise” thing to do. And soon there will be no Vinaya rule against it.

     I suspect that even mentioning this aspect will have some people disregarding all that came before it and declaring that I have simply been “dicknapped.” Though this could hardly have arisen if all the other conditions, previously discussed, were not already in effect. Also she and I have known each other for rather a long time (literally years), although we have never touched each other physically, and both of us have given this particular case a LOT of thought. We share a strong affinity, a deep energetic resonance, and being together feels right. Krishnamurti did have a point when he spoke against struggling against one’s own nature.

     So these, plus the one mentioned in the previous installment (namely that I stopped making progress in Buddhist formal contemplation and the monastic life), are my main reasons for opting for a radical change in social status and somewhat of a shift in my orientation in life. My intention is to continue living much as I do already, except for handling money, handling a woman, and feeding myself…although that, plus a few additional conditions, will be discussed in the next post.




Comments

  1. THE IMPERIUM OF MAN IS ALWAYS SEEKING TO ORDAIN HIGHLY QUALIFIED INDIVIDUALS AS NOBLE INQUISITORS IN THE ETERNAL WAR AGAINST THE RUINOUS POWERS!

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  2. Well, good luck, I guess
    Kinda confused tbh - I mean do you actually love one another, does she love you - because you shouldn’t need to think about whether you love someone A LOT ......
    So she will be supporting you and you will be living in her house?
    Marriage?
    Ok, will wait for the next episode!
    Good luck.....

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  3. I have been married to a wonderful woman for twenty years (in June).

    It hasn’t always been easy - after the love goggles fall off (2-10 years usually) you then are no longer ‘in love’ and have to learn ‘to love’ one another - that’s a totally different thing but that’s the real thing.

    Good luck to you both.


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    Replies
    1. Self-help motto for today: "Love is acceptance"

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    2. 'Love' is a word to describe a strong attachment to something pleasant. Attachments are conditioned phenomenon and therefore impermanent. "I love movies!" "I love music!" "I love ice cream!" These are all sensual experiences and people get attached to sensual experiences because they are pleasant. Therefore 'loving' one's wife or girlfriend is no different.

      Words are vague, hard to define, and often cause misunderstandings. It's all craving for sensual experience, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence.

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    3. True love is not an emotion. The emotional part is animal instincts. But when Christians say God is Love, it's not talking about emotions or animal instincts. The fundamental aspect of love is acceptance; and if you totally accept something or someone you totally love them.

      Then again, Spinoza defined love as pleasure associated with an external object.

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    4. Sounds a lot like HERESY!

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    5. A relationship is the perfect arena for practising compassion, understanding, perseverance, genuine caring, and a whole host of other positive character traits.
      All these people talking about metta in the monastery are just pretending because they’re not putting it into action.
      Hopefully, you’ll be with someone who wants to reciprocate on the same level, not always, but some times.
      Good Luck with it.

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  4. The Reason Of UnreasonApril 23, 2021 at 8:02 PM

    Always remember - you have to talk to them afterwards - they like that.
    It’s small talk......like really s.m.a.l.l talk
    That’s when she’ll tell you the ceiling needs painting.
    If you thought meditation was hard or unrewarding........
    But your mind is made up so a sincere *Good Luck* to you (hope you don’t need it).

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    Replies
    1. WEAK AND THEREFORE HERETICAL!

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    2. MGTOW nonsense. Being a lay person is part of the Buddhist community too. Do you go to a temple and shout "WEAK AND THEREFORE HERETICAL" at married people going into listen to a Dhamma talk? Being a married lay person is not at heretical- in is perfectly in line with the Dhamma.

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    3. "MGTOW nonsense. Being a lay person is part of the Buddhist community too. "

      added after buddhas time by corrupters

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    4. The Reason Of UnreasonMay 2, 2021 at 9:41 PM

      Each monk, the Buddha included, was born not hatched - so yes, the lay community is intimately connected with the Buddhist community, albeit once removed.

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  5. Not worth. Sensual pleasures are good only when they are fresh. It all will soon lose its appeal and you'll certainly regret.
    (I'm not judging you) On the other hand, reading few of your previous posts with blatant pornography, I guess it was the natural outcome??? Desire only grows and you set your mind in sensuality. What else to expect?
    I wish you good luck, and please ordain again if you regret.

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    Replies
    1. Regret is ALWAYS an unskillful mental state, and thus it is always volitional self inflicted dukkha. I took that to heart long ago.

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    2. "Regret is ALWAYS an unskillful mental state, and thus it is always volitional self inflicted dukkha"

      This I have heard you say before and it has helped me a lot, thank you venerable!

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    3. My wife and I will have our 35th anniversary this summer. Love changes over the years, the sex thing falls more and more into the background and something else - not sure what to call it - gets foregrounded. I’ve made a ton of mistakes through the years but marrying my wife is one of the few things I actually got right. The secret is to marry the right person, not so easy to figure that one out, but a good wife and a good marriage is worth the sacrifice of some freedom. I think you’re headed in the right direction.

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    4. Wow! 35!! You make me feel like a newbie at twenty.
      Congratulations and Happy Anniversary to you both Sir!

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    5. Many more happy anniversaries to both of you.

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  6. I really enjoy your writing and your videos. Thanks for sharing. I'm a married lay Buddhist, and while I understand the purpose of living as a renunciate, having a wife and family has provided a constant and rewarding opportunity to practice Dhamma.

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    1. This is absolutely true. There are a few people on here who are acting like the only way to truly practice is as a monastic. Yes, it is a more intensive and focused path for one who is ordained, but the Buddhist community is also made up lay people who fall in love, get married, have kids etc.. this is even spoken about in the texts. The Buddha had advice for married people too- not just monastics.

      Bhante is choosing to return to lay life- that means he is moving from being a bhikkhu to being an upasaka. It might behoove some here to read the texts where the Buddha talks to laity instead of focusing on the more esoteric meditation texts. It might give them a shot of realism to what the Buddha actually taught to everyday people and not escapist fantasy.

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    2. I'm pretty sure the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, the bible for Vipassana meditators, was delivered to a mixed group consisting mostly of laypeople, according to tradition. The text does seem to be directed primarily at monks though.

      Anyway, as I keep pointing out, living according to the instructions of the Iron Age Ganges valley doesn't work so well in the modern west, and possibly all of the people disapproving are people who themselves are unable or unwilling to live like monks. There has to be some compromise between ancient India and the modern west, and I have no intention of simply diving head first into superficial normie-hood.

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  7. Love bears the sweetest fruit. Retiring into the arms of a soft woman and Love sounds like a wonderful choice rather than wilting away at a desolate Monastery in Commifornia or plunging back into the sweltering heat of se Asia, alone. I look forward to your continued works as you expand down this new, broad path. Change is exciting and spawns growth. Metta!

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  8. The choice between monk-hood and a woman is a recurring theme. Good luck in whatever you choose to do.

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    1. Again though, my decision isn't JUST a choice between monkhood and a woman. Readers should not totally disregard everything else I have said, and will say in the next part also. I figured reason #3 would eclipse everything else in the minds of some readers however, since it is a rather "juicy" one.

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    2. My comment was just a reflection, not indicating that it is the main reason for your disrobing, but for what you are planning to do next. The recurring theme can also be found amongst philosophers (Kierkegaard, Kant and Schopenhauer come to mind). Irritability towards worldly nonsense is a mark of a well-developed mind, which is to be expected after 30 years of solitude and serious practice, hence i am wishing you good luck. I look forward to reading part 3 :)

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  9. Well, good luck on the next stage of your life! You say that "especially with a woman who truly suits me, who is compatible with me, who can blend with me to the extent that two people can," and it seems that there is a woman who you feel might be a good fit with you. My advice as a Vipassana meditator who had a lot of girl-friends and has been (generally) happily married for over 40 years is two-fold: keep meditating;and don't seek to impose on your relationship your rules, as it seems that you have often sought to do in the past. I am dismayed when Vipassana assistant teachers or servers act in ways contrary to the practice and Goenka's instructions, and at times I and my family have been greatly damaged by that, but they aren't me and I can't change them, I can only send metta. One thing I realised only late in life is that "love makes no demands;" looking back, I can see how problems arose in relationships because I did not understand that. I hope that your life will be happy and peaceful, but the reality is often otherwise. Happy trails!

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  10. So no more burger flipping then? ......that’s disappointing.

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    1. Having been married nearly 30 years, I beg to differ with Mr. Cunningham. Love makes a shit ton of demands, as you will soon find out. But it's worth it, in the long run, for reasons I can't explain.
      As someone posted earlier, Pannobhasa, you should look into Shinran, as he also lost his "vocation" and took a wife during much harder times (although they both came from aristocratic Japanese families).

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    2. People seem to assume that I've never had a woman before. I was ordained in my late 20s, and was not a virginal child. So I do have SOME experience.

      (That suggestion also reminds me of Martin Luther.)

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    3. Yes, Shinran is known as the Martin Luther of Japan, as he founded a Mahayana Pure Land sect having a married clergy.

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    4. that experience was before tinder took over though. even dating experience from 5 years ago is out of date.

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  11. Speaking of anniversaries...Happy 30th Anniversay, Bhante! What a great accomplishment!
    Looking forward to the anniversary vid you spoke of a few weeks ago.

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  12. And what is the reason, the cause, of liberation? Knowledge, wisdom. And what is the reason, the cause of wisdom? Samadhi, concentration. And how is concentration arising? By absence of remorse, arising joy with it, concentration comes about. And what is the cause of no remorse? No failure in the holly life, virtue of the Noble one. Abd what is the cause that one strives for remorseless life? Dukkha is the cause of Saddha to arise. And what is the cause, the reason of Dukkha (to be seen and aware)? Birth under good association. For it's drunkeness, indoxication with youth, health, life, that one seeks pleasures of the world as refuge, not seeing the poision with the cake. So one who isn't a fool put effort into increasing right view, right intention, virtue, right livelihood and the path and liberation develops by it's given causes by itself.

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